Complications of a mastectomy 

In most cases, recovery from a mastectomy is straightforward and without complications.

It's normal to experience certain side effects, such as short-term pain and swelling of the tissue over your chest wall. You'll also have a scar.

You may have swelling at the site of your operation due to body fluid collecting underneath the skin. This is called seroma. It often disappears without treatment, although it may need to be drained with a needle and syringe. Speak to your surgeon or breast care nurse if you think you're developing seroma.

If you've had the lymph nodes removed under your arm, you may experience numbness and tingling around this area. This often goes away as the area heals, but in some cases it's permanent. There's also a small chance that any pain you experience after having a mastectomy will be long-lasting.

Other complications include infection and a condition called lymphoedema (a side effect of mastectomies, that involve the armpit). Speak to your specialist or breast care nurse immediately if you think that you may be experiencing any of the symptoms described below.

Wound infection

Your wound may be infected if the wound site:

  • becomes red
  • becomes more painful and swollen
  • is leaking fluid (discharge)

This can be treated with antibiotics.

Lymphoedema

If you've had some lymph nodes removed, you're more at risk of developing a condition called lymphoedema. This usually starts some time after surgery, but it can also develop many months or years later.

Lymphoedema is a build-up of fluid in the arm that causes swelling, pain and tenderness in your arm and hand.

Your nurse will tell you how to prevent lymphoedema using skincare techniques and exercises. If it occurs, lymphoedema can be controlled with early treatment in a specialised lymphoedema clinic.

Risks of breast reconstruction

If a breast implant was put in after your mastectomy, there's a slight risk of it becoming infected. If this happens, the implant may need to be removed.

The implant may also be removed if your skin fails to heal properly. The risk of this happening is higher in people who have diabetes or smoke.

Page last reviewed: 15/02/2015

Next review due: 31/12/2017